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MUSINGS FROM THE ETHER: DOES SIZE MATTER?

Dale Wilson ambrotype antique Canada Canadian collodion dale wilson historical photo processes pictureology tintype wetplate

Size matters ... doesn't it?

In our continuing search of discovering all things collodion, we have been bombarded with the self-induced question: Does size matter?

The long-and-short of it is yes, and no.

If consideration, on start up, is to simply learn how to make plates without consideration to plate size, historical accuracy and with a restricted budget, I believe one would be hard pressed to find a more economical entry point than a 4x5 Crown Graphic or 4x5 Cambo view camera, as examples. By simply adapting a 4x5 film holder, you now have the apparatus to make plates for less than $500. Shop diligently and a suitable camera and lens should be available for $250.

The very utilitarian Speed Graphic 4x5 is a great starter choice.

The reason I recommend this size is one of operational economics and user friendliness. From a straight mathematical perspective,  one can make four 4x5 plates from one sheet of 8x10 inch glass. Therefore, chemical requirements (cost) are 25% of the 8x10 inch size. Making collodion plates also has a long and relatively steep learning curve. Consequently there is a high level of waste upon start up, we should endeavour to minimize that cost of waste.

Of course the counter argument is to purchase the 8x10 or whole plate (6.5 x 8.5 inch, I love this format) and then use reducing backs to learn on the more economical 4x5 inch size. This is a valid argument, but my experience has been that it is just about impossible to acquire a good quality lens and camera for less than $500. Should a good quality Century, Seneca, or Blair become available, it would be difficult to not give it serious consideration.

There is just something much sexier with wood and brass, such as this whole plate Seneca, c1903.

Reducing backs can be made from contemporary sheet film holder quite easily. There are many tutorials online that show how to do this. I have several plate holders, and I love the one made by Ty Gillory; but he is no longer making them. Same goes for Jody Ake. I would then recommend serious consideration be given to Chamonix Cameras in China. They make a beautiful wooden plate holder that comes with a variety of size reduction adapters -- I have used one on my whole plate for about 18 months without issue.   

Incidentally, it is extremely difficult to determine the actual material cost of making a plate. After four years of logging and tracking my plates and the costs associated, I have estimated it costs about $3.50 to make a 4x5 plate on clear glass, $4.25 on trophy aluminum and $4.75 on black glass. Making plates with a whole plate (6.5 x 8.5 inches) costs about $5.50 on clear glass. (These are Canadian dollars, and should be read as estimates only.)

So, does size matter?

That depends on who you talk with. I think yes. But with that having been said it is always best to start small and then go big, or start big and make it small.


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  • Ross on

    I started with 4×5 inside a reducing insert on my 8×10. This allowed me to make lots of mistake a learn in a much cheaper way than going straight to a larger size. My dream has always been to get to a size that is closer to 1:1, but I figured patience is everything when it comes to wet plate, so why rush straight a larger size. That being said, when I moved to 8×10, the plates seemed a lot easier to pour. Think there is a balance there—cost, waste, bad pours etc.

    I’ve now got a 24×24 rig together, but again, planning on using reducing inserts to start at 8×10 and move up to 20×24 and 24×24.


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